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Why Isn’t Everybody Wearing a Mask?

Continued influence effect, American individualism, and desirability bias.

August de Richelieu/Pexels
Wearing masks helps slow the spread of COVID-19. So why isn’t everybody wearing one?
Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

We now know, from a variety of sources, that mask wearing helps slow the spread of COVID-19. There is plenty of scientific evidence suggesting that wearing a mask helps reduce transmission. More specifically, an analysis of almost 200 countries showed that the spread of and death rate for COVID-19 was significantly less in countries that quickly instituted mask-wearing policies. And the national health organizations in the United States eventually caught up with this good advice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend that “people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

So why isn’t everybody wearing a mask? There is an explanation, but there are multiple parts to it. One of the things that complicated consistent mask-wearing in the United States is the continued influence effect, which refers to how misinformation can persist even after it has been shown to be false. Unfortunately, the misinformation started with the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH), which initially suggested that Americans not wear masks as the pandemic first reached the United States. We now know this was poor advice, but there was a reason for it—“a severe shortage of protective gear for medical professionals at the time.” Correcting that initial misinformation has been a struggle, further complicated by the president of the United States noting, correctly, that Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the NIH) “had been against Americans wearing masks.” That is true. Dr. Fauci had been, but he eventually corrected that stance, and statements like the president’s, which was technically correct, if misleading, have further complicated the public’s understanding of the importance of this behavior.

Another reason is the particular strain of individualism that runs through America. Other Western countries that have been identified as individualist (rather than collectivist) have solved this mask-wearing problem. So why can’t Americans get it right? According to the Brookings Institution, “the number one reason given by Americans who are not wearing a mask is that it is their right as an American to not have to do so. … This is a challenge for public-health outreach, as an individual’s underlying sense of personal autonomy is hard to combat with improved or enhanced messaging.” The same research showed that 60% of Americans wear a mask “to protect both myself and others from getting sick.” Unfortunately, that percentage (just three out of every five people) isn’t the critical mass necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 to levels that would allow the country to resume its usual activities.

This American individualism ties pretty easily to another psychology concept in play here, the desirability bias, which leads us to pay attention to and believe new information that fits with what we want to hear and ignore new information that does not fit with what we want to hear. So, some people aren’t wearing masks simply because they don’t want to do so (their right as an American, 40%, or because the mask is uncomfortable, 24%), and they look for information that fits with what they already want to do. Of course, suffering through the symptoms of COVID-19, by most accounts, is considerably more uncomfortable than wearing a mask. And there is the general belief, accepted by most humans, that death, while an American right, is undesirable as well.

On October 2, 2020, it was reported that the President and First Lady of the United States had contracted COVID-19. As The New York Times has reported, “For months, Mr. Trump has refused to wear a mask in public on all but a few occasions and has repeatedly questioned their effectiveness.”

Stay safe and please wear a mask. You might save your life or somebody else’s.


Howard, J., Huang, A., Li, Z., Tufekci, Z., Vladimir, Z., van der Westhuizen, H., von Delft, A., Price, A., Fridman, L., Tang, L., Tang, V., Watson, G. L., Bax, C. E., Shaikh, R., Questier, D., Chu, L. F., Ramirez, C. M., & Rimoin, A. W. (2020). Face masks against COVID-19: An evidence review. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Leffler, C. T., Ing, E. B., Lykins, J. D., Hogan, M. C., McKeown, C. A., & Grzybowski, A. (2020, June 15). Association of country-wide coronavirus mortality with demographics, testing, lockdowns, and public wearing of masks. Update August 4, 2020. [preprint]

Seifert, C. M. (2002). The continued influence of misinformation in memory: What makes a correction effective? Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 41, 265-292.

Tappin, B. M., van der Leer, L., & McKay, R. T. (2017). The heart trumps the head: Desirability bias in political belief revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(8), 1143-1149.

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